History Of The Penny

The world history of the Penny coin including its roots and major highlights.

The penny has also been known as the cent, the pence, and minor (for minor or insignificant coin). The definition of the penny comes from its derivation. Probably from the word pun in English taken from/for the word pound as used in measuring silver, gold and such like. Therefore, a penny was a specific part or fraction (probably 1/1000) of a pound. It is also 1/100th of a dollar in the countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. In Great Britain the "new penny" was 1/100th of a pound (though earlier as a measure it was literally 1/1000th of a pound in weight). The new penny is no longer used in Great Britain and little used in the United States. In fact you can see cashiers regularly forgiven for neglecting to return a penny in change to persons due it; consumers generally don't want the nuisance coin.

The pre-US history of the penny

There is much history before any coin was named a "penny" that will tell us the lineal roots of the first penny. Before the penny there was king Pepin's novus denarius meaning new denarius. Before this was the Roman coin the denarius and before this was the drachma, Greek in origin. Greek slaves who had previously minted the drachma minted the denarius. The novus denarius was based on the denarius and the penny was based on the novus denarius. Now these were all silver coins though pennies eventually were minted from copper.

From there, the history of the penny can be shown to be perhaps as old as the first use of minted coinage ever. The dachma, Great Grandparent to the penny, dates to 2500 and the first minting of coins occurred only 100 years earlier than that. Previous to the minting of coins, transactions or "trade" was the literal barter exchange of goods for goods. Where this was not used the substitute was an exchange of weighed gold or silver whose value was known and constant, a standard of exchange. One particular kingdom of the time called Lydia where Turkey now resides, had high reserves of an unstable alloy. This alloy was called Electrum. Electrum had gold and silver in it but in quantities that were never constant. It couldn't be used as a standard of exchange in the same way as pure gold or silver. The Lydian coinsmiths created the first coins as the result of a refining process that stabilized the Electrum into consistent and knowable quantities of gold and silver, they could then be used in weighed exchanges like gold and silver. These were given a stamp to prove their authenticity. This is how the first coins ever were created. You can see how closely the modern senny and its history are intertwined with the advent of coinage and the whole monetary system itself.

The first pennies

The earliest record of the penny by name in history is from 790 AD when the first British penny was minted. It was originally pressed in silver. Through its early British history the penny had varying weights and molds. It was first pressed by King Offa of Mercia bearing the name and image of his wife the queen Cynethryth. With the succession to King Ceolwulf, the penny was pressed at the mint of Canterbury. From there the penny underwent many changes. The names added to the penny changed based on current design, so giving us such names as the short cross penny and the long cross penny from 1180 to 1279 AD. The back of the penny carried the names of the moneyers who actually pressed the pennies until 1279 when they were replaced simply with the name of the mint itself. The front still carried the image and name of a prominent figure. Many attempts were made to introduce gold coins until 1351. The penny however stayed silver and began to be reduced in weight by thirds over time (twice) from its original weight. A form of the penny exists today not only in the US but also in Ireland, The UK and Canada.

The US penny

In 1793, the United States of America was trying to establish itself among the nations of the world. President Washington was made aware what an urgent matter it was for the US to have a stable system of coinage. A case can be made that the 1792 half dimes resulting from this need were the very first coins pressed by the United States Government. However the chain cents of 1793 were probably the first. The US penny, named after the British penny or pence was first minted as the US penny around 1787. Pennies in the US were first pressed in copper. The first design was by the famous Benjamin Franklin. The penny of 1793 from Philadelphia was a chain design billowing around and something to be seen in order to be appreciated, as no description is suitable. The pennies of 1793-1796 were called the large cap coins due to the large cap hovering the head of the party embossed on the coin.

Versions of the Penny

After Ben Franklin's minted version the most notable US Penny was the indian cent. The 100% copper indian cent, produced from around 1859 to about 1864 is fabled to be designed as the result of genuine indian assistance. You see an indian chief supposedly loaned his chieftain headdress to the model for the coin's image that was the daughter of the designer, to wear for the engraving. From 1864 to 1909 there was another change in that the coins went from 100% copper indian cents to 5% zinc and 95% copper. This change was right after the civil war. The first lincoln cent like what we have today appeared in 1909. If you have a 1909 penny hold on to it! More pennies have been pressed than any other coin in the US. Throughout WW2 pennies were steel covered in zinc to allow the use of copper in wartime for military purposes. There have been adoptions of a new penny at the 100th and 150th birthday's of Abraham Lincoln in honor of him. In 1959 this produced the penny with the Lincoln memorial on the back. Of course if the indian cent and first Lincoln penny of 1909 could be had these would be a prize. The more knowably collectible versions and years are listed here.

The history of the more collectible pennies

The 1960 small date penny was a collector's dream as was the 1955 obverse and also the 1969 San Francisco S which was thought to be counterfeit even by some government officials. The 1970 large and small date pennies and the 1972 double die obverse were a collector's combo, coming very close together in date. The 1984-D has been rumored to be valuable as well.

What are the rarest collectible pennies?

The 1943 penny is a real copper penny worth about $80,000.00. Though some of these dozen beauties have sold as low as $10,000 the highest price given is a recorded $112,500 as late as 1999. One would think the $80,000 valuation should be adjusted. Times changing as they are, these pennies might fetch many times the $112,500 price to a museum only a generation or two from now. This is the most valuable collectible penny you have a real chance of scoring in a search of any old pennies. Copper you ask? But weren't the 1943 pennies all steel and coated with zinc due to the need to save copper for the war effort? Yes all but the first 12 minted which were minted from the copper already in the machine. Follow me into the vast history of the 1943 "Copper" pennies.

Likely the first 1943 copper penny discovered was noted among a handful of pocket change around 1947. There was another discovery later that year which gained quite a bit of notoriety. The government in the form of the Philadelphia Mint denied there were any 1943 coppers as late as 1947. We're not certain there were only 12 but that there were about 12 copper 1943 pennies known to have been minted by accident, when copper blanks (from which pennies are pressed) were used which were unwittingly left in the press hopper when production started on the new pennies of zinc coated steel.

The rarest penny known to still exist in any form is the 1793. There are only four that we know of and that's why you are unlikely to ever find one, unless you find the missing 5th penny, if there even is one. These four are each valued at around $275,000.00. One oddity of the penny was the Liherty where an h was substituted for the obvious b. The penny today is in shortage in some places through piggy bank and collector hoarding and often banks will trade a crisp dollar for less than 100 pennies.

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